Residents of parts of the wooded communities of Portola Valley and Woodside, already advised to prepare for disasters such as earthquakes and wildfires, now face a new situation that warrants such preparedness: intentional shutdowns of the electrical power grid by Pacific Gas & Electric Company.
Such a pre-emptive step by PG&E may be necessary "to address the growing threat of extreme weather and wildfires," according to a recent letter the company sent to customers living in areas considered to be at high risk of wildfire.
Click here for an interactive and detailed map, prepared by the California Public Utilities Commission, showing locations in Woodside, Portola Valley and nearby areas that are considered to be at "elevated" or "extreme" risk of wildfire.
A home or business is a candidate for shutdowns if it's served by a power line that passes through an area of elevated or extreme fire risk. Click here to determine whether an address is served by such a power line.
In Woodside, for example, Town Hall is listed as not at risk of an intentional shutdown due to weather conditions. A quarter-mile to the west, the power lines supplying the commercial district at the intersection of Woodside and Canada roads are vulnerable, the site says. The opposite is the case in Portola Valley, where Town Hall is said to be a candidate for a shutdown, whereas the commercial district at the corner of Alpine and Portola roads is not.
Fire Chief Dan Ghiorso of the Woodside Fire Protection District, which serves Portola Valley, Woodside and nearby unincorporated areas, said the map PG&E is using is dated. He also questioned the company's use of the word "threat," saying in an email that it was open-ended.
PG&E met recently with fire chiefs in San Mateo County about this program, Ghiorso said. The meeting and presentation were "challenging in that we do not fully agree with their plan as it is today," he said
"We wanted specifics as to when they would do this potential shutdown, how many people would it affect, when would they be able to restore power, (and) what parameters would cause this action."
PG&E spokesperson Andrea Menitti explained by email what might prompt a shutdown in a high-fire-risk area. The decision, she said, would be informed by factors such as strong winds; "very low" humidity levels; "critically dry" vegetation; and on-the-ground, real-time observations from field crews.
The company would coordinate its decision with first-responders and town officials; it would "attempt to contact customers in advance, when and where possible, and provide updates until power is restored," Menitti said. The company would provide some updates via social media and local news outlets.
"We know how much our customers rely on electric service and would only consider temporarily turning off power in the interest of safety, and as a last resort during extreme weather conditions," she said.
PG&E would restore power when crews consider conditions to have moderated and after inspecting the power lines when it is safe to do so, Menitti said. If a shutdown extends into the night, the inspection would happen "at first light," she said, adding that, "In most cases, we would expect to be able to restore power within 24 hours."
PG&E's grid will automatically shut down residential and commercial solar panels "for safety reasons," Menitti said. The solar panels should re-engage automatically when PG&E restores power, she said.
In preparing for shutdowns, the company recommends visiting its Community Wildfire Safety Program website (is.gd/PGEadvice). The site provides links to emergency preparedness instructions and offers tips on preparing for outages. Among them:
• Talk with the family physician on planning for refrigeration of medications during the outage and medical devices that need electric power.
• Plan ahead for dead cellphone batteries by ensuring that every family member has a copy of important phone numbers.
• Keep water frozen in plastic jugs to keep food cold during outages.
• Become familiar with opening your garage door using its manual release lever.
Any outage can have serious consequences. Community health and safety institutions depend on electric power. You could be in an elevator or at home working on an important enterprise when the power goes out.
"This plan is all about safety," Menitti said when asked to comment about possible serious consequences. "It's important for all customers living or working in a high fire-threat area to have an emergency plan to be prepared for any extended outages due to extreme weather."
"My hope," Chief Ghiorso said, "is that folks would have some or at least as much warning as possible before this would take place. But I do realize the speed of some of the recent fires may dictate a very short time frame for notice."
"I am not fully against this action," he added. "(I) just think we need much more information for homeowners. I know this was done down in San Diego County last year by San Diego Gas & Electric. ... I am not sure it could ever be proven effective."
A Mercury News story from December 2017 describes a pre-emptive shutdown by San Diego Gas & Electric. A Public Utilities Commission ruling had assigned to company shareholders a recovery cost of $379 million in connection with three 2007 wildfires that investigators found had been started by power lines, the story said, adding: "That ruling sent shock waves across the utility industry."
Residents can update contact information for PG&E here.